The Actors Collective explores the ribald one-act plays of Shel Silverstein.
Thursday, August 23, 2007
While Shel Silverstein is best known for his classic children’s books such as The Missing Piece and The Giving Tree and his endlessly delightful volumes of poetry Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attic, he was a preternaturally prolific creative force who generated plenty of material aimed at stimulating grown-ups.
The Actors Collective delves into the artist’s lesser-known work with a two-weekend run at Monterey Live when it presents An Adult Evectortorning of Shel Silverstein, a collection of 10 alternately sardctonic, hilarious, whimsical and decidedly dark one-act plays. First produced in New York City in 2001 by David Mamet protégé Karen Kohlhaas, An Adult Evening reveals that some of Silverstein’s wildly inventive wordplay comes with an R rather than a G rating.
“If people come expecting Where The Sidewalk Ends, they’re going to be in for a shock,” says Nina Capriola, who founded the Actors Collective several years ago with Jeff Heyer.
The Collective already presented one of the pieces, “Blind Willie And His Talking Dog,” at an SPCA benefit last year. A blues riff about a street musician and his talking dog, the one-act play whetted the Collective’s appetite for more of Silverstein’s beautifully bent dramas. They’ve taken considerable creative license with the work, turning two pieces into short films—one silent and the other a blues musical.
The latter seems particularly appropriate, given that Silverstein, who died in 1999 at the age of 68, was a gifted songwriter who was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. Though he shunned publicity, he penned several hits, including Johnny Cash’s Grammy-winning “A Boy Named Sue,” Loretta Lynn’s “One’s on the Way” and the Irish pub standard “The Unicorn Song.” Many people didn’t realize that he wrote most of the songs for Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show, including “Cover of the Rolling Stone” and “Freakin’ at the Freakers’ Ball.” Others were only acquainted with him for his novelty numbers such as “The Smoke Off,” which was a staple on the Dr. Demento radio show for years.
A creative whirlwind, Silverstein was also very interested in theater and film. He and David Mamet collaborated on the screenplay for the 1988 movie Things Change starring Don Ameche and Joe Montegna. He wrote many of the Adult Evening pieces around the time he was working with Mamet.
“He did a lot of plays, both one-acts and more ambitious stuff, but the one-acts were a particular fascination of his,” says Mitch Myers, Silverstein’s nephew and overseer of his archives. A conjurer in his own right who writes about music for various magazines, Myers recently published a book of rock ‘n’ roll fables, The Boy Who Cried Freebird, many of which have aired on National Public Radio.
In many ways the timing couldn’t be better to present An Adult Evening, as Simon & Schuster recently published Playboy’s Silverstein Around the World, a collection of all the travel writing that Silverstein did for Hugh Hefner’s magazine. Whatever you think about Hef, he certainly came up with an ideal gig for Silverstein, a bon vivant and uber-hipster, and a long-time contributor of cartoons to Playboy. Armed with his pen and keen eye for human quirks, Silverstein traveled the world, sending dispatches back to the magazine between 1957-1968.
“Shel’s being understood as a more well-rounded figure now,” Myers says. “Some people just want the kids stuff and don’t want to acknowledge the ribald work. The plays fall more on the ribald side. They’re very arch. He’s quite a wordsmith and a great satirist. It’s an opportunity for him to take apart the human condition one more time.”
For the Collective, An Adult Evening is something of an experiment in terms of timing and venue. It’s the company’s first foray into Monterey Live, where they’re hoping to perform regularly, and with a 6:30pm curtain, the shows are unusually early. For Nina Capriola, working on An Adult Evening has driven home just how ubiquitous Silverstein was. When she mentioned the production to a waitress while having breakfast, it turned out that she used to live next to him in Sausalito.
“One of our cast members has a friend who used to go out with him,” Capriola says with a laugh. “But I’m really blown away by how prolific he was as an artist: the music, the cartoons, the plays, the kids’ books. For us this is a great opportunity, because rarely do you get a chance to do things that are political. This is so funny you can sort of sneak it in. You can come and enjoy it on a topical level, but Silverstein is always poking at some deeper meaning.”